Creatine is one of the safest, most researched, and effective nutrition ingredients. It’s produced naturally in your body, found in food, and helps for both men and women with a variety of wellness goals. Its benefits include everything from protecting the health of your brain, to improving exercise performance and strengthening your bones.
If you step inside the center of Human Performance at the University of North Carolina, you’ll receive an inside look at the future of nutrition and fitness. And if you talk to Dr. Abbie Smith-Ryan, Co-Director of the program, you might be surprised by what you hear.
“Creatine is one of the most multi-faceted and beneficial supplements on the market. It's at the top of my list for one of the first supplements to try; it’s safe, inexpensive, with next to no side effects."
And yet, if you Google creatine, you might find yourself overwhelmed with negative information that is both outdated and inaccurate.
Dr. Smith-Ryan has studied the many benefits of creatine throughout her career, and the evolution of the ingredient is nothing short of amazing. What once started out as a misunderstood performance-enhancing ingredient (many people thought creatine was a steroid; it’s not), has now become a staple ingredient for anyone looking to increase muscle, lose fat, live longer, protect their brain, or even prevent nutrient deficiencies (vegetarians and vegans typically don’t consume enough creatine in their diets).
"When you look at creatine, it's hard to argue why it wouldn't help anyone," says Smith-Ryan. "Beyond the usual uses, creatine has a positive impact on injury rehabilitation, hydration, as a neuroprotectant (brain health), and even as a potential antidepressant. There are also some really interesting data for use during pregnancy, as it's associated with fetal development, as well as for a prevention in post-partum depression."
To fully understand why almost everyone would benefit from creatine -- including men and women, the young and old, it’s good to realize what creatine is, and why it has so many benefits.
Why Creatine Works
Creatine is made up of 3 different amino acids (arginine, glycine, and methionine). Amino acids are the building blocks of the cells in your body. Unlike illegal drugs (such as steroids), they are not synthetic substances that cause hormonal changes and non-natural adaptations in your body.
Instead, creatine functions similarly to how a vitamin supports your body. It can support deficiencies and offers a variety of benefits because creatine can help a variety of processes that occur in your body. That includes providing energy to your mind and body.
Creatine is found in many foods, including beef, chicken, milk, and cheese. The problem: the dose is so small you'd have to eat 2-3 pounds of meat per day to experience the same impact of as about one teaspoon of the powder form.
Creatine has been studied extensively for 35 years (and counting), and it's safe to say that it is less dangerous than over-the-counter drugs like acetaminophen. (You won't find any documented cases of accidental overdose causing death.) And there’s research on infants, adults, and the elderly to support claims about safety and effectiveness. [If you’re interested: Here's a roundup of a lot of the research on all of the benefits.]
Want to know how creatine can help you? Let us count the ways.
Creatine Benefits: Your Brain
Creatine's ability to help your brain is one of the most recent -- and compelling -- benefits of creatine. It appears that creatine can help maintain brain health by fighting against neuron death. Cells in your brain can deteriorate over time, but creatine supplies energy to help protect cells so they can live longer. This is especially interesting for anyone suffering from traumatic brain injury. Creatine also shows potential for limiting the frequency of headaches, fatigue, and dizziness.
Creatine Benefits: Energy
Your main source of energy for exercise and movement is ATP (adenosine triphosphate). You burn ATP quickly, which is why when you push hard fatigue can come fast. Enter creatine, which makes sure you don’t fade quickly, which means you can keep pushing harder during your activity of choice. Creatine acts like extra energy when you need it most, without any uncomfortable caffeine-like crash.
Creatine Benefits: Muscles
Creatine can help you grow bigger muscles by increasing water content in your muscle cells, which triggers genes involved in adding size. It also appears to improve your nitrogen balance, which is an essential component of helping transform protein into muscle.
Creatine Benefits: Strength
Remember how we discussed that creatine increases your ATP? This makes a big difference with lifting weights. You see, normally, when you do an exercise, you quickly deplete your ATP. This is one reason why when you workout fatigue kicks in and your strength decreases. By supplementing with creatine, the additional ATP makes a world of difference for your strength. In a review of 22 studies, people who use creatine show nearly a 10 percent increase in strength compared to those that don't.
Creatine Benefits: Speed
The energy boost that you see with strength training also appears with short-burst running activities like sprints. If you’re doing quick burst activities (anything categorized as a “sprint”), then you can expect to see improvements to your speed, and you'll recover faster. This means you can perform multiple sprints at a higher intensity without seeing a decrease in performance.
Creatine Benefits: Recovery
At some point, we all go through periods where we just don’t work out as much as we’d like. Whether it’s sickness, injury, or just being busy, life happens. In those scenarios, creatine can help you bounce back quickly from your time off. While the ingredient won’t maintain muscle if you completely take time off, once you start back, it can speed the process by which you gain back lost muscle.
Creatine Benefits: Potential Anti-Depressant
While research is still developing, a study conducted by the University of Utah and three South Korean universities found that taking 5 grams of creatine (the amount found in Ladder Energy) along with an antidepressant helped women with depression recover two times faster than just taking an antidepressant. More research is ongoing, but it appears that the same nutrients that help keep your brain healthy also fight off mental fatigue. And because mental fatigue is tied to the overwhelming symptoms that are associated with depression, supplementing with creatine reduces the triggers that can cause depressive episodes.
Is Creatine Dangerous?
Most of the concerns about creatine are rooted in pseudoscience, says Smith-Ryan. The idea that creatine harms your kidneys is completely unfounded and not supported by any research.
So how did that rumor start? It was partially based on a belief that creatine will dehydrate your body because of how it hydrates muscle cells. However, research on NCAA football players found that athletes using creatine had less cramping, heat exhaustion, and muscle strains than non-users. And there’s nothing to suggest that creatine actually causes dehydration.
Creatine is not linked to any dangerous health problems, and it has never been associated with death caused by overdose. safe from any dangerous or serious health concerns. That doesn’t mean it’s completely free of side effects. Some people experience nausea or diarrhea. If that’s the case, you can lessen those side effects by taking smalls doses (think 2-3 grams), drink more water, or consume with food.
Is Creatine for You?
If you want to experience any of the above benefits, creatine is an effective and safe option. If you’re vegetarian or vegan, it might be even more beneficial. While those diets are very healthy, they don’t provide your brain and body with nutrients you find in meat or dairy. Research suggests that creatine can be helpful for vegetarians and vegans, and not just for building muscle. It mind be effective at improving memory.
There are many different creatine options, but the most tested and proven is creatine monohydrate, which is the source of creatine used in Ladder Energy. Not to mention, research suggests that other forms of creatine (such as creatine ethyl ester) are not as effective at delivering results. Typically, you’ll see all the benefits you need from 5 grams of creatine, and there’s no need to “load” creatine with higher levels.
If you're going to supplement with creatine, buy the powder version. Pre-mixed liquid creatine reduces the effectiveness and absorption compared to powder or capsules.
If you don’t do any resistance training, just 2 grams will do the trick.